Afghan government struggling to keep support of Islamic council
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 10:40 PM
KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration is struggling to shore up support from an influential Islamic council, which appears to be shifting to more conservative, anti-government views at a time when it is being asked to play a key role in persuading Taliban insurgents to surrender their arms.
The Ulema Council, composed of 3,000 mullahs from across the country, has long been counted on to spread a pro-government message to remote villages and keep the Karzai administration informed about popular opinion. The administration pays each mullah a monthly stipend of about $100 and in return expects support for its agenda.
But council leader Fazl Hadi Shinwari, a former Afghan Supreme Court chief justice who is in his late 80s, has been in a coma at a hospital in India for months since suffering a stroke. And the government is having trouble finding a suitable replacement, said Mohammad Umer Daudzai, Karzai's chief of staff.
In the meantime, 350 Ulema Council members made headlines at a meeting a few weeks ago when they voted to demand that Karzai implement sharia law, a strict Islamic code that includes severe punishments, such as death by stoning for adultery. That was the method the Taliban chose last month for the executions of a young couple who had eloped.
Without strong government support from the council, Daudzai said, clerics sympathetic to the Taliban could win influence over the populace.
"They might say suicide is allowed, and then we'll have more and more suicide bombings," Daudzai said.
The critical role the mullahs play in influencing society came into stark relief this past week when they organized a handful of fiery demonstrations in Kabul and elsewhere in protest of a Florida church's plan to burn copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Hundreds of young men burned effigies, threw rocks and chanted anti-American slogans, and the mullahs said they believed the actions by the church, which later postponed its event, could help the Taliban recruit young, disaffected Afghans.
Enayatullah Balegh, an Ulema Council member and professor of sharia law at Kabul University, organized one protest of more than 500 people last Monday. He said the council does not support the insurgency.
However, he said the group agrees with some of the Taliban's values and believes that the government should "use religion to be tolerant, to be peaceful and to listen to some of the legitimate [Taliban] claims that are in line with Islamic religious principles."
Furthermore, Balegh said, the council is increasingly frustrated by NATO's tactics in the nearly nine-year-old war.
"The violations by international forces, like ransacking houses, putting pressure on the government, promoting and demoting people in the government - that is against the principles of the Ulema Council," he said. "The national sovereignty of Afghanistan is seriously under question."
A key part of NATO plan
Keeping the mullahs on board could be critical as NATO forces ramp up a surge this fall to clear Taliban strongholds and bring security to regions that have become more dangerous, mostly in the south and east. A government "reintegration plan" developed in recent weeks calls for at least one council member to be on each of the provincial teams that will reach out to lower-level Taliban fighters.